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28 August 2013

The needs of women offenders to be recognised in law

A requirement that the particular needs of women offenders must be addressed in the provision of supervision and rehabilitation services is now included in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill and will be given the force of law when enacted.

The Offender Rehabilitation Bill was amended by the Government during the House of Lords third reading yesterday (9 July 2013) to require the Secretary of State to ensure that arrangements for supervision and rehabilitation services comply with the public sector equality duty “as it relates to female offenders”.  This will apply to public, private, and voluntary sector providers of offender services.1Hansard HL, 9 July 2013, c160, available at

The amendment fulfils a commitment made by Lord McNally during the House of Lords Report Stage debate on 25 June, in response to concerted efforts by Prison Reform Trust Chair Lord Woolf and other Peers during the passage of the Bill. It is a result of sustained work by a wide range of Prison Reform Trust supporters and women’s organisations to ensure that the needs of women in the criminal justice system are given statutory protection.

Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Programme to Reduce Women’s Imprisonment, supported by the Pilgrim Trust, said:

“We welcome this amendment as a significant step forward. For the first time an obligation to meet the particular needs of women offenders is explicitly recognised on the face of a criminal justice statute. It is an acknowledgement by the Secretary of State that these needs must be met if equality for women in the criminal justice system is to be achieved.”

The need for women’s services

The amendment comes at a critical time in the contracting out of supervision and rehabilitation services for offenders. The extension of statutory monitoring and supervision to offenders sent to prison for less than 12 months will disproportionately affect women as most women serve very short prison sentences:  71% (5,287) of all women entering prison under an immediate custodial sentence in 2012 were sentenced to less than 12 months. In future all these women will be subject to the new supervision periods. For men the proportion was 57%.1Table A2.3, Ministry of Justice (2013) Offender management Caseload Statistics 2012, London: Ministry of Justice Unless the supervision requirements accommodate their specific needs and circumstances, there is a strong likelihood that more women will end up in custody for breach, which is already a significant driver of women’s imprisonment.

As a result of the amendment, Lord McNally said, “service providers will be required to demonstrate that they understand and will respond to the particular needs of female offenders where these differ from those of men. This will include for example taking account of women’s family and caring responsibilities.”  He went on to say that the Government “will be looking for providers to come up with innovative ways to deliver gender-specific services that are responsive to local needs, and we will expect them to make links with partner agencies to provide holistic service at a local level.”2Hansard HL, 9 July 2013, c160

Supporting the amendment as a step forward for women offenders, Lord Woolf said “It has been well recognised that their needs are different, and it is certainly time that those who are responsible for meeting those needs should have the responsibility clearly set out in statute.”3Ibid. The government has committed to issuing guidance on working with women to providers of services, and to transparency in the contracting process.